The distant blue dome of the Chuska Mountains rises from the horizon south of Cortez with a mysterious and alluring pull.
In the heart of Navajo Country, the isolated mountain range in northeast Arizona tops out at 9,800 feet in elevation and is blanketed with thick forests that open up to stellar views of the colorful Southwest desert.
But access to the Chuska backcountry for non-Navajo tribal members is limited without a permit or special permission.
The annual Chuska Challenge mountain bike race is the exception.
The 20-mile community race and tour are open to the general public. They provide a unique opportunity to enjoy the remote mountain range not normally accessible, said organizer Tom Riggenbach, executive director of NavajoYes, a youth organization that focuses on healthy living.
“This is our 27th year. The Chuska Challenge is one of our premiere race events,” he said. “Simply put, it’s a fun, family event, with some competitive spirit thrown in. The main point is to get everyone out riding bikes!”
The race and others are put on in cooperation with the Navajo Nation Parks Department, Navajo President Jonathan Nez, the Navajo Tribal Council, local chapters and NavajoYes.
NavajoYes promotes outdoor recreation and puts on a series of running and biking races in Navajo County, including the legendary Tour de Rez.
COVID-19 precautions were in place for the Chuska Challenge Sept. 18, including mask-wearing at the start and finish lines, staggered starts to prevent grouping of people and fewer events.
About 80 people participated under blue skies and mild temperatures in the 70s. A DJ played rock music and traditional Native American songs.
The course climbed to Buffalo Pass on pavement, then veered onto rough dirt roads that crisscross through the heart of the Chuskas. Bikers pass through ponderosa forests, up and out of valleys, across open meadows, and by Navajo communities and sheep herder camps.
“The bikers show respect for the land, the people and each other. That good attitude is appreciated by the residents and ranchers along the course, and makes the race a success,” Riggenbach said.
“The sheep dogs mean business,” he advised racers at the start. “Give them space. They are doing their job.”
The loop route passes through the Dine’ Bikeyah Oil Field, which is the largest oil field in Arizona. Aid stations offer support along the way. Sandy sections slowed people down and added a tough element.
A race highlight was the enjoyable out and back climb to Top of the World overlook.
Riders stopped in their tracks to take in the stunning views of canyons, desert spires and red mesa cliffs. The Carrizo Mountains beckon in the distance as do Monument Valley and Bears Ears. Tucked into the valley below is the idyllic Navajo community of Cove.
Access through a ranch to the Top of the World viewpoint is available only to the general public during the race. A Navajo Nation Ranger stands by on an ATV as people sat in groups or alone to take in the view.
Navajo Shoni Curley Jr. was impressed by the vista of his native lands, and was is riding the race for the first time, inspired by his younger sister.
He recently took up mountain biking as away to change his lifestyle after a heart attack that required surgery.
“I changed my diet, started biking. I feel good, blessed,” he said. “This is the longest I have ever biked, and it makes me want to check out other biking areas too. Part of my story is that I was always told I had high cholesterol, but never did anything. Don’t go the way I did. Live a healthy life now, your family and kids are depending on you.”
Racers came from Navajo County, the Four Corners states and beyond.
“It’s great to be here. We’re so excited. Everyone is having fun,” said Trevor Salt, 30, a Navajo tribal member who traveled from Bingham, Utah. “Biking is getting more popular for Navajos. It has economic benefits too. We have donated bikes so they can be repurposed and used again by youths.”
Former professional mountain bike rider and U.S. Olympian Travis Brown, of Durango, took first place in the men’s race with a time of 1 hour, 29 minutes.
Tom Preller, of Page, Arizona, took second at 1 hour, 50 minutes, and Jamie Whitehorse took third with a time of 2 hours, 56 minutes.
For the women, Alana Bencivengo, of Fort Defiance, Arizona, took first place with a time of 2 hours, 2 minutes. Terry Kellewood, of Binado, Arizona, was second at 2 hours, 26 minutes, and Gerald Kady, of Bloomfield, New Mexico, came in at 1 hour, 57 minutes.
“It’s an old-school race on two track roads, with some good climbing and descents,” Brown said after the race.
Preller surged out in front with a strong pace early on, he said, and Brown caught up on a descent. The two rode amicably together, switching leads.
“Whoever was in front would take the wrong line through the sand, and the second would see it and take a better line and pass. It was funny,” Brown said.
Brown said he got a gap on the climb toward Top of the World and rode away with the lead to the finish. This is his third victory for the Chuska Challenge in as many years.
The race location on the Navajo Nation makes it special, said Brown, whose employer Trek donated bikes to Navajo youths.
“The consensus and cooperation by Navajo communities and governments to open up access and put on these events is what makes it possible. The terrain is premier and has made this race legendary,” he said. “Getting youths involved is a big part of the mission.”
Cycling does not require a lot of specialized training or programs once you learn the basics.
“Just ride; the more you do, the strength, skills and stamina will naturally come,” Brown said. He said biking development programs avoid intense training regimens for young riders and just encourage them to have fun.
The idea of the Chuska Challenge was started by Riggenbach and his students in 1995 while he was a teacher at the Navajo school in Shonto, Arizona.
He and his students regularly rode mountain bikes in the Chuskas and wanted to share the experience.
“We were on a ride one day having fun and said, ‘let’s invite some more people to enjoy this,’ and the rest is history,” Riggenbach said.
In 1995, he organized the inaugural Chuska Challenge, and it took off.
“It has gone through a lot of variations. Next year the plan is to have a similar route, and hopefully bring back the live music.”